Fisher, Linford D. The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 312 pp. $26.95.
Linford Fisher is a tenured Associate Professor at Brown University, whose focus is in cultural and religious history in Colonial America. In addition to being the author of The Indian Great Awakening, he collaborated on Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father and Land of the Unfree: Indians, Africans, and the World of Colonial Slavery is his forthcoming work under contract with Oxford University Press.
The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Culture in Early America is a Native-centered account of indian responses to the Great Awakening. By Native-centered, Fisher means that natives responded to the Great Awakening with their chief concern in mind, and it was not primarily the state of their soul. Rather, the chief concern is temporal because the temporal is intertwined with the sacred. Facing the startling prospect of a colonial hegemonic threat, natives privileged preserving identity, land, and tradition by accommodating to Christian affiliation. Fisher argues: “Native individuals and communities often found missionaries, education, and Christian ideas and practices interesting and useful, but this interest and utility were almost always filtered through the realities of colonialism and a deep and abiding concern with retaining Native land and preserving community, sovereignty, and autonomy” (7).
Over the course of eight chapters, Fisher presents compelling correlations to substantiate this argument. More or less a chronological survey, each chapter of The Indian Great Awakening is governed by a unifying theme that characterizes native life during the stage of time portrayed. Fisher begins by looking at background of native and colonial life leading to the Great Awakening (chapter 1). He moves on to examine the stimulus to either propagate or be receptive to evangelism (chapter 2), followed by a survey of the events and key revivalist figures influencing natives during the Great Awakening, and assessing the native response (chapter 3). He then nuances the idea of conversion with the more helpful ascription of affiliation and substantiates this argument with primary source material (chapter 4). Fisher aptly depicts the Indian Separatist movement by looking at portraits of individual indian leaders: Samuel Niles, Samuel Ashpo, and Samson Occom (chapter 5). The critical place of education, particularly after the Great Awakening, is painstakingly given attention (chapter 6). The complexity and purpose of mass migration and why some did migrate while others chose not to migrate is explored (chapter 7). The Indian Great Awakening concludes by looking at those who remained, namely the Narrangasetts, who developed a self-sufficient and autonomous church with little outside help (chapter 8).
Chapter one frames the setting for Fisher’s study by helping readers understand the inexplicable tie between native culture and religion, the significance of land, and the colonial initiative of mission. Fisher conveys the different phases in missions to the natives during the scope of this study, 1700–1820. Missions and evangelism to the natives finds its crucial turn of explosive growth unsurprisingly during the Great Awakening. This is when the natives become a widely reached people. However, the idea of reaching or converting the natives may mean something fundamentally different from what one might suspect—more on this soon. Fisher’s depiction of Native American life highlights that native religion was synonymous with native culture (16). This will prove to be a significant observation in order to understand the declension following the Great Awakening and the importance of natives forming a separate expression of Christianity.
Fisher does not rely exclusively on eyewitness testimony or published accounts to build this thesis, nor does he neglect these as fundamental helps. Rather, he examines an array of evidence—from a funerary object, like the Pequot medicine bundle in the introduction, to local church records of baptisms, marriages, and memberships. This evidence is leveraged to establish his thesis that indian responses to the Great Awakening may indeed have more to do with what Christianity might be able to do for the indians than alternate hypotheses. One risk that I sensed with approaching the social history aspect of this study is the danger of confirmation bias. However, I am inclined to agree with Fisher’s conclusions as he has presented them. I found his presentation of both the quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data to be thorough and transparent, giving me a high level of confidence in his conclusion. Partly this has to do with how Fisher allows his thesis to have some flex.
Motivation is a critical component to the thesis of The Indian Great Awakening, and chapter two, in particular, draws attention to this significant matter; Fisher sketches the motive for the evangelizers and motive for the evangelized leading up to the Great Awakening. He appears to overlook the more idealistic motivations—such as Millennial expectations or sincere concern for souls—perhaps assuming those are understood. Instead, Fisher emphasizes practical implications for evangelizing natives. Simply put, Christian colonials wanted to civilize the natives as they expanding into their territory and graft them into an anglicized, christianized, New World. The natives were useful to combat the Catholics in New France, helpful to the colonist’s survival, and, as King Philip’s War exhibited, natives were a real danger and threat. Ultimately, it would be better to have them anglicized rather than catholicized or remaining autonomous. Likewise, for the evangelized, the colonists were powerful, in control, and had many assets found wanting, one perhaps unsuspecting asset that made the natives curious and receptive to evangelism was the prospect of English education. This motivation proves to be a prime factor for natives in order to provide a promising path for their future in a world dominated by English settlers. In fact, Fisher correlates the response of the natives to the Great Awakening, their interest in baptism and christian profession, with an oft-simultaneous appeal for amenities that come with profession—education and resources germane to successful education like clothing, food, property, or permanent facilities (73). Economic factors played a substantial role as a driver for both the evangelizer and evangelized. For this reader, it would have been helpful if Fisher had provided an understanding of standard of living and annual wages during the eighteenth century. I might have better understood if exploitation was taking place or if the mission endeavor might be described as “an emergent market.”
As a historian Fisher steers clear of speculating on subjective realities that are indeterminable. His discussion on conversion in chapter four evidences this. Fisher nuances that conversion, true conversion, is not something as easily demonstrable as one might assume. In fact, using this term to describe the indian’s response to the Great Awakening in particular and missionary efforts in general is a misnomer. It is more fitting to ascribe the response as realigning affiliation—one that might be abrogated given appropriate circumstances, circumstances like not regaining possession of land taken by colonists or not receiving requested education, which often was accompanied with accouterments like blankets, English clothing, or other staples (86). Fisher demonstrates the reality of abrogation by examining primary church discipline evidence, while also using this evidence to point out that realignment of affiliation does not typically appear in spaces where prior missionary efforts had not occurred.
There appears to be a declension pattern from a number of indians following the early 1740s as the Great Awakening waned. Fisher concludes that this declension in devout worship, evidenced by a lack of individuals moving from baptism to communicant membership, might very well be indicative that Christianity did not do what the Indians assumed or hoped that it might. On the other hand, one might also argue along the lines of Jonathan Edwards in the Freedom of the Will. Sometimes decline has more to do with satisfying the appetite for immediate impulses at the expense of later, even better, desires being realized. Could these natives have merely fallen into declension because the immediate satisfaction of brandy or illicit sexual gratification outweighed the later and greater realities that accompanied conforming to an anglicized and christianized culture by continued education and catechetical instruction? Had they given up too soon by breaking the covenant offered to them?
As a final point, in spite of how vivacious Fisher argues his thesis, one would not proffer that his thesis is inflexible. He does not venture that the Indians had a monolithic programmatic driver for affiliation, namely utilitarian gain. He agrees that affiliation is not merely a response to the usefulness of Christianity. The Great Awakening was also meaningful as well. This is a significant but subtle nuance. Fisher comments that “Christian affiliation were mingled and intertwined with the inner, personal, and subjective elements of religious experience and practice” (106). The very presence and flourishing of Indian Separatism as portrayed in chapter five indicates how deeply meaningful Christianity became for many natives. For some natives, enough of their identity had been built around Christianity, causing them to keep it rather than jettison this worldview and revert back to “savagery.” It is likely that the inculcation of christian thought and Scripture through education must be credited for this flourishing. Furthermore, christianity—during the post revolutionary life—did not offer pragmatic allure to remain, neither in New England nor in the worldview system. Yet, remain many did, particularly those of the Narragansett. Somehow christianity offered a meaningful enough sense of identity to anchor these people in this one place and find contentment. They somehow transitioned through this tumultuous period. Perhaps, the Great Awakening offered more resonate meaning for some like the Narragansett. The potential of exploiting the revivalism of the 1730s and 1740s for clothing, education, and repossession of property did not offer a sustainable reason to stick with Christianity or New England when those promises did not come to fruition. Nonetheless, other elements of the Great Awakening—long periods of singing, a leveling of laity and vocational roles, autonomy, ecstatic and extemporaneous preaching and exhortation—all these nascent elements of early native christianity seem to resonate and carry forward from the Great Awakening to the Narragansett. Perhaps these are the elements that anchored the natives to stand fast and remain.